Sunday, June 10, 2007

China's Charm Offensive

This week, Costa Rica cut off official diplomatic ties with Taiwan and opened them with mainland China. Business leaders cringed this week as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once again pressed Chinese President Hu Jintao over "shortcomings" in democracy and human rights when the two met at the G8 summit in Germany. On Friday, the G8 leaders agreed to allocate 60 billion U.S. dollars "over the coming years" to finance the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and a further 500 million dollars for the "Education for All" program in Africa. Development and aid experts, however, consider this new pledge as a step backwards, compared to the promises made at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to double development assistance by 2010.

How are these three stories related? At first glance, they might not appear to be and I might not have been thinking of such connections either if I had not recently read Joshua Kurlantzick's "Charm Offensive" (Yale University Press, 2007).

In this fascinating study, Joshua Kurlantzick examines the significance of China's use of "soft power" since the late 1990's to advance its standing and interests in the world. Through the use of diplomacy, foreign aid with few or no strings attached, trade incentives, and cultural and educational exchange programs, China has reinvented its reputation worldwide, developed stronger international alliances and effectively silenced its critics. This is especially true as it has focused its attention on developing world countries in East Asia, Africa, and South America.

The recent actions by Costa Rica clearly demonstrate this, as Costa Rica ended a long-term relationship with Taiwan in response to China's rising investments and trade with the Central American country. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias acknowledged that the decision to go with Beijing was related to Costa Rica's desire to bolster its economy, and he criticized Taiwan for giving "insufficient" aid to its allies. "I was always critical of the Taiwanese, and I can say now that I always told them ... if you want to have friends in the world, you should be more generous," he said. This is exactly what China did.

This same methodology of winning friends and influencing people through soft power can be seen worldwide, as Kurlantzick amply demonstrates. Unfortunately, this at the very time when many western, affluent countries are cutting back on foreign aid or attaching strings (e.g. increased accountability). Also, many western countries are cutting back on other aspects of their soft power initiatives at very time that China is increasing its.

One might ask, how does this relate to the persecution of Christians? Why is VOMC discussing this on its weblog? The answer can be seen in how this charm offensive by China has effectively silenced its critics who would try to push for greater religious freedom in this totalitarian state. As Kurlantzick points out, this is the most dangerous part of China's soft power. Despite government promises of reform and the economic changes that have taken place, he reminds us that China remains an authoritarian country where the trend is recent years has been towards increased suppression of those perceived as being threatening to government control.

Increased trade is not promoting greater freedom of expression and belief in China. Rather the opposite is true and as the Beijing Olympics near, these crackdowns on dissidents are increasing so as to have everything under control before the world media arrives. Additionally, when resolutions are proposed at the United Nations to prod China towards greater openness and accountability, China is now able to call upon its new allies to defeat them. This was evident in 2004 when many countries that receive Chinese aid such as Eritrea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were able to pass a "no action" resolution to prevent debate and a vote on a U.S. sponsored resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights regarding China. This is also evident when business leaders in free countries like Canada criticize the Prime Minister when he uses his office to push for greater human rights in China. Such actions are seen as bad for business when the Chinese government-controlled media responds to such criticism by saying that Canada is being "harsh" with China and that such actions "sour" China's mood towards Canada. This rhetoric is geared to pressure the Prime Minister to tone down his convictions and "get back on track" as former Canadian ambassador-turned-entrepreneur Howard Balloch expressed it to the Toronto Star on June 2, 2007.

"Charm Offensive" is available through both Amazon and Chapters-Indigo. I highly recommend it.

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